Claus Guth’s Royal Opera production of Janacek’s Jenufa was scheduled to open in March 2020, but was aborted at the last moment by Covid. Better late than never. It has now opened, and it makes a stunning evening.
However, this visual spectacle is not immediately apparent. In what looks like a white-walled industrial sweat-shop, rows of identically-clad female automata are peeling potatoes while the dysfunctional family whom the story is about bicker centre-stage. We are asked to accept this arid piece of Teutonic stylisation as taking place in a remote Moravian village 100 years ago. There is no sense of time or place; the figures on stage might be in some mad scientist’s laboratory. But Guth has a plan, which he reveals only gradually.
The plot concerns Steva, a dissolute young mill-owner whom all the girls fancy, and his fiancée Jenufa, whom his half-brother Laca also loves. Jenufa’s foster-mother, known as the Kostelnicka (a female sacristan), wants to protect her from the effects of Steva’s drunkenness. But Jenufa is expecting Steva’s child, and is desperate to avert scandal in this tightly conventional community by marrying him. His refusal to do so triggers tragedy. Her mother forces her to give birth in secret; to protect her daughter’s reputation she gives her a sleeping drug and murders the child. But she’s not clever enough to properly hide the body, which surfaces next spring when the winter ice melts…
Yes, this is quintessential Janacek territory, full of desperate desires and pent-up emotions, with violence always lurking below the surface, and with the orchestra magnifying those emotions to create a wild and lurid landscape. Guth keeps the stage bare – and under crepuscular lighting – from start to finish. Yet the few visual surprises he allows are so breathtaking, and the performances of the principals so convincing, that we are carried irresistibly along.
Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu’s mellow-toned, swaggering Steva perfectly fits the bill, but tenor Nicky Spence’s Laca upstages him as the score demands, with a piteous desperation that cries to the heavens. In the great Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who 20 years ago memorably incarnated Jenufa, we get a massively convincing Kostelnicka; she has wonderful warmth and power, serving as the ideal foil to Asmik Grigorian’s sound in the title role. This Lithuanian soprano holds the entire dramatic edifice together with a remarkable purity and evenness of tone, and an emotional restraint which makes the pathos of her plight all the more absorbing. Guth’s staging of the affirmation of hope in Janacek’s conclusion is a gorgeously heart-warmingcoup de théâtre.
There are aspects of this show that stay long in the mind afterwards, including the dream sequence in which a bloodied child crosses the stage; the giant raven which perches ominously over Jenufa’s prison; and the blaze of colour which suddenly suffuses the stage for Jenufa’s ill-fated marriage. The chorus vividly evokes a village community; the orchestra under Henrik Nanasi’s direction plays a blinder. Go and see it.